Sunday’s message at church was from Mark 1:40, where Jesus healed a leper. I’ve never met a leper or seen anyone with horrible skin diseases, but I can imagine the disfiguration that comes from leprosy. I recall the movie Ben Hur and the valley where the lepers lived as their skin fell off. But you can know things your whole life and not really know them at the core. How many times have I heard a Scripture and thought to myself, “Oh, sure, the Samaritan woman at the well, John 4. Sure, I know that one”… only to have a gifted pastor break open my calcified mind and find a fresh spring flowing there? How could that Samaritan woman have five divorces and not be adulterous, cuz adultery was punishable by public stoning, right, and she’s still breathing? Hmmm. Maybe something else is going on…. It happened again today. For some reason the message was a fork in my eye and a tattoo needle beating on my brain like a hummingbird’s wing.
Our Pastor Interimus is Don Baker. He focused on human touch, and how critical it is for human well being to be touched by other humans. He mentioned how kids love to touch things, even break things, and how we guard valuables against errant touch. But in the Gospel of Mark a leper approaches Jesus, a rabbi. It is the most unclean member of that society, covered in open leprous sores, approaching the cleanest, God himself in human skin. According to the laws and customs of that time, “even the shadow of the leper” could make one ceremonially unclean. That’s some intense mojo attributed to leprosy. As far as I can Google search, leprosy is communicated via sneezes and armadillos not through touch. I know you must think I am pulling your on-line leg, but check my facts on this one. I have earned your incredulity, I know, but this is true; trust me. No? Then at least trust Wikipedia.
Anyway, since we don’t have lepers in our little town, we had to generalize to the various outcasts who don’t touch us because we avoid touching them– the mentally ill, the poor, the foreign, the imprisoned, GLBT. These are the very folks God told us to provide for, along with widows and orphans. They are our untouchables, our pariahs. And how are we doing with this gift of human touch? Not well, I’m afraid to report. I don’t cringe when a mentally ill person’s shadow falls on me. I’m not that superstitious…but that is a very vague form of touch. For it to occur implies there is a geographic closeness between us. On the other hand, I don’t approach these folks openly and lovingly. We don’t touch one another. I think it’s awkward or unnecessary. I speculate, “Someone in church or government will comfort them. I contribute to those institutions, so I’m indirectly good. I have indirectly fulfilled my duty… like paying someone to take my place in war.” The thing is that Jesus did not merely tolerate the leper; He directly embraced the man, and His touch healed the leper. He did not send the leper to the Salvation Army or the United Way or County Welfare.
Later in Sunday School we expanded the analysis of Mark’s passage. As we read deeper, we saw a trade going on, very similar to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus trades places with the leper who came in from beyond the camp or city for healing. Because the healed leper could not restrain from telling others of his miraculous healing, Jesus was then overwhelmed by healing seekers and had to leave the city limits. In a short time frame Jesus became an outcast, and a threat to the order of Jerusalem and Jewish life. He had this way of turning things and people’s minds upside down. If you’ve ever baked a pineapple upside down cake, then you’ve had the odd experience of flipping a perfectly placid cake surface over onto a wildly juicy, fruity layer that drips invitingly. Jesus did this without a cake or pineapple. He did the same thing to the woman at the well, and she ran off to tell everyone what happened to her: Jesus had reset her, right side up.
It is an odd thing that when we are hurting, we isolate ourselves from others. We lay low and lick our wounds. Survival is all that concerns us then, and in our isolation we validate our own pariah-ness. Then, when relief or healing comes, we can’t restrain ourselves; we have to shout out our victory. How to bridge the gap between hiding from pain and embracing the cure? Somehow that leper knew who Jesus was and found Him. The leper was proactive, but the woman at the well did not know about Jesus. They merely met at Jacob’s well at noon. She was reactive and defensive until Jesus broke through her resistance by telling her of her five husbands. This outcast woman ran into her village to tell others about Jesus being the Messiah, His words being living water. So whether you seek Jesus or He seeks you, the outcome can be the same if you will abandon your isolation.
Have you ever been the leper? The outcast? The hated one? It’s not fun being the only gay guy on the football team, the only Black person in the county, the only Jew in Tehran, the only Muslim in Brooklyn, the only white guy in Camden, the only lesbian at the beauty pageant, the only woman in the submarine, etc. How about the only sane one on the psych ward, the only native in a sea of migrants, the only migrant in a sea of natives, or the only insane one on a sane ward? Your “only-ness” is indicative of your isolation and helplessness. Everyone needs help; everyone needs a savior. How crazy is it that someone who is all would trade places with you in your empty nothingness? And yet that is what Jesus does for addicts, adulterers, sex offenders, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, used car salesmen, bankers, teachers, pilots, preachers, plumbers, bar owners, managers, and you. His crazy love is no crazier than running away from a leper’s shadow.